Todd Field's career as an actor includes appearances in Radio Days, Fat Man and Little Boy, Ruby in Paradise, Walking and Talking, The Haunting, and Stanley Kubrick's final film Eyes Wide Shut. His directing career kicked into high gear with 2001's In the Bedroom (which netted the writer-producer-director two Oscar nominations). Now Field's follow-up Little Children, based on a novel by Tom Perotta (Election), is garnering similarly strong notices. Field spoke to me about his new film—and the truth about Eyes Wide Shut—at San Francisco's Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: In most literary adaptations in films in general, the narrative voice is subsumed into the image in montage. What do you think it does to the audience's relationship to the material to bring out a third-person voice?
Todd Field: Well, for me, the main thing that it does is it allows this absolutely essential element—my initial attraction to Tom's novel—to continue to exist, which is his voice. That's the first thing that struck me. The very first thing that kind of grabbed me with his book was the third-person narrative in the book and how he got me in the beginning. He grabbed me, and he had me laughing, and he had me—in a very particular manner, and as I got deeper into the book, I wasn't laughing anymore. The other thing is, this isn't a drama, you know? It's his book, and it's not pure satire either; it's this odd hybrid that I don't know—you know, people aren't running out the doors to make satirical melodramas. But that's what it is. And it seemed like it needed some kind of framing device that would help that. Also, the central idea is this idea of fear and judgment, which is embodied in many different fashions in all these characters in his book, but centrally around Ronald James McGorvey. So it was also an opportunity to be able to have every character sort of have some moment of interior life reflected in that third person narrative, with the exception of Ronnie. So he would be pulled out so he comes in and we meet him, and after we've heard a lot about him from the community, based on Larry's activities, the narration takes a step—a big giant step back. And you don't hear it for an awfully long time. And it's about the fourth reel—it's about an hour and ten minutes into the picture, and it only comes back if we're going to meet another character, whether it's his mother, May, or whether it's that dinner party or some other element. But he's never commented on. The fact that he would enable that character to be up for grabs for us as an audience, and we either judge him or don't judge him, based purely on selective observation and not a passive observation as opposed to the third-person narrative. That was the conceit anyway.
G: And is the camera sort of the visual extension of the narrator—the omniscient narrator? Because it seems to move so freely through the neighborhood.
TF: Well, when Tom and I sat down to write the script, that was the first thing we talked about, which is what will the third person narrative do and not do? And the script was built around that narrative. There's all kind of films that are really fond of—that have used that as a framing device. And I never hesitated to do it. You know, having said that, if you told me before I read Tom's book I was ever going to do a film with any kind of narration, or any kind of humor, for that matter, I probably would have told you you were crazy. But, you know, that's what the book did to me. And that was the only way that it made sense to get into it—
G: One of the dark running jokes in the film is that everyone's attitude toward the sex offender is "Castrate him." And yet the character seems to be neither irredeemable nor healable entirely. So is there anything we can do as a society to deal with a character like that?
TF: I don't know. I mean, I don't have any answers about that. I have three children and the actualization—the realization of someone that may have that aberrant behavior is not something I can relate to. Which is why when we sat down to make this into a script, it was very important that this be more like a fable and that character be more of an archetype and represent a monster or a troll under the bridge or whatever euphemism you prefer to an actual depiction of what we might think is someone with that aberrant behavior. It was also very, very important that we not know specifically what he had done. The only thing that we know he was convicted of was exhibitionism or indecent exposure to a minor. We don't know that he's ever touched anyone; we don't know that he's ever harmed anyone; we don't even know if that was a seventeen-year-old girl or seventeen-year-old boy, which would actually be a very different kind of crime—or something else. That's up for grabs for us as an audience. And those are for us to judge or not judge. And that was important because—again, this is not straight-up drama; it is very theatrical, in a certain sense, and the thing that I got about Tom's book—which [was] so abundantly clear reading that in '03—is that here is this sort of fairy-tale allegory for the state of our country, you know, looking for evil in the corners based on evidence or dodgy evidence, sending people off to prison with no human rights whatsoever and looking over our shoulders all the time and wondering, "Are we good citizens of the world?" and moreover, "Are we good Americans?" That's what interested me about the material. The idea of exploring some kind of sexual deviance or impulses—that's another movie. And that's kind of beside the point. I mean he could have—this character could have had all kinds of problems. We're dealing with parental anxiety as a platform to explore fear and judgment and a lot of other things. So what scarier monster to have than an alleged, whatever euphemism you want to attach to that character. But that's really up for grabs for the audience—
G: Looking for identity in someone else is one of the big themes of the film. Is it human nature to avoid introspection or is it something in the culture, do you think?
TF: Well, we're living in a very distracting time, you know? We've got our telephones that are always on. Or you have a blackberry, or you have a computer. Or you have cable television. Or you have the noise if you live in a city. But I don't think people—I think it's harder to have—I know for myself even living in a small town and trying to avoid all those things—desperately trying to avoid all those things—it is harder and harder to have reflection in a way. And maybe that's just a matter of my age. I found that as a younger person I was able to have a tremendous amount of self-reflection—probably more so than now. But I don't know. I know I'm more distracted. I think that as a society we're probably a lot more distracted—because it makes us very good consumers. It keeps us confused. I mean, do you feel that way?
G: Yeah, oh definitely, yeah—watching the film, ironically, sitting there in a movie theatre as it's unspooling—a good film that draws you in and touches your intellect can be a source of self-reflection as well. I think that's true of this film.
TF: Well, that makes me happy that you say that. I mean, that's why, for me, films are exciting. That's why I like to go to movies. That's why I like to watch—I'm very careful about what I watch because of that. 'Cause I'm really romantic. Like I want to watch a film—I want to make sure there's no distractions. And then I want to walk around and walk a little bit for a few days. Lately I've been watching—I've kind of parceled it out, one a month...Michael Haneke's films. And those films just destroy me for, like, weeks. And it's really wonderful (laughing), you know? Because—I mean, have you seen all of Haneke's films?
G: Oh yeah.
TF: Have you seen all of them? Have you seen Code Unknown and Time of the Wolf and Piano Teacher?—Have you seen 71 Fragments? What a great film, huh? There's one film that he did—have you read any of Roth's books? He did this Philip Roth book—or is it Joe Roth?—about this strange and surreal period in German history. He did it as a long mini-series on German television; I've been trying to get my hands on that.
G: R. Lee Ermey recently made some comments about Eyes Wide Shut that took me back to that film. He said that Kubrick, who of course is famous for being neurotic about his movies, didn't care for it—this is just before he died—and that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman had "had their way with him." I wonder what your perspective would be on those comments?
TF: Probably the polite thing I would say is "no comment," but the truth is is that—let's put it this way, you've never seen two actors more completely subservient, and prostate themselves at the feet of a director. Stanley was absolutely thrilled with the film. He was still working on the film when he died. And he probably died because he finally relaxed. But it was one of the happiest weekends of his life, right before he died, after he had shown the first cut to Terry Semel and Tom and to Nicole. And he would have kept working on it like he did on all of his films. But I know that, from people around him, personally, my partner, who was his assistant for thirty years, and—I thought about R. Lee Ermey for In the Bedroom, and I talked to Stanley a lot about that film. And all I can say is Stanley was adamant that I shouldn't work with him for all kinds of reasons, which I won't get into because there's no reason to do that to anyone, even if they've said slanderous things that are, by the way, I know are completely untrue—
G: You said that, in working on a film, you like to choose material that you know that you haven't entirely mastered yet because the process is so long and you want to have those discoveries over time. What were some of the discoveries you came to during this process and especially during your rehearsal conversations with the actors?
TF: Oh, boy. I think—it's a long conversation. Things that were absolutely always there—that you could—there's one thing to intellectualize connections—thematic connections. Or, you know, from primordial to plain-on-the-nose-of-your-face visual connections, that come out of a process. And there's another thing to feel those things as you're working on them and have them dawn on you, which is the truth of something, in the same way that somebody can give you advice that could be very good advice, but it's completely cheap until you realize it for yourself. It's just words. And that's what, in the best possible sense, working on something for a long period of time is, which is that certain things that you know are self-evident you begin to feel are real for you, and that that keeps happening through the process so that after two years—yes, you're exhausted, but you're not bored or indifferent, which are killers and will leave you hollow at the end of two years. So you hope that you've chosen wisely when you choose material because if you haven't, you're going to figure that out pretty quickly and, in about six to eight months, you're going to say, "Oh my gosh, what am I doing here?", you know, and "Awwwwrr, I've got another year on this and I'm gonna die." But I didn't have those fears with this because there were things in Tom's book that I responded to in a way that was complicated enough for me anyway to where I had a pretty good notion that that wouldn't happen—that those things wouldn't keep happening. But to actually sort of cherry pick and tell you what those things were—ooh, we'd run out of time—
G: You said that the one thing that you're not looking forward to in your future career is making the films based on the scripts you wrote—maybe years ago now—that are more personal or maybe...autobiographical? Why is that? Why do you dread making maybe that—
TF: Well, I don't dread. I wrote a script that is fairly autobiographical about when I was about sixteen. It was the second feature script that I wrote. I wrote another one a very long time ago, which I'm fairly certain I'll never make. But that one I will. Well, when I wrote it, I wrote it for Stacey Snider right out of film school when she was running TriStar. And I never sent it to her because I gave it to my then-lit agent who didn't read it for about eight weeks and then called me up and said, "1980 isn't a period." And I said, "Well, it is for me. That was my childhood." And she said, "No, that's not really a period. And this is a coming-of-age story, right?" And I said, "Yes." And she said, "Well, let me send you some writing examples." And then she sent me all these sort of like goofy coming-of-age stories. And I'm so depressed I waited eight weeks for someone to read it that I just put it on the shelf, and I never showed it to anyone except for my wife. And I kind of decided then that I'd probably wait until I was about fifty to make it. Because then 1980 will really feel like a period, you know?
G: ...Thank you.
G: Thank you...why couldn't I have had this conversation on Charlie Rose?
[For Groucho's review of Little Children, click here.]